Meles meles

Meles meles

The European badger (Meles meles, Linnaeus, 1758), is a mammal of the Mustelidae family.

Systematics –
From the systematic point of view it belongs to the Eukaryota Domain, Animalia Kingdom, Subarign Eumetazoa, Superphylum Deuterostomia, Phylum Chordata, Subphylum Vertebrata, Infraphylum Gnathostomata, Superclasse Tetrapoda, Class Mammalia, Subclass Theria, Infraclasse Eutasheria, Family Order Mustelidae, Subfamily Melinae and therefore to the Genus Meles and to the Species M. meles.
Eight subspecies of this species are recognized:
– Meles meles meles Linnaeus, 1758 – Badger proper, larger subspecies, widespread throughout Europe (except in the Iberian Peninsula, Crete and Rhodes) and east to the Volga, the Crimea and the Caucasus;
– Meles meles arcalus Miller, 1907 – Cretan badger, widespread on the homonymous island;
– Meles meles canascens Blanford, 1875 – Caucasian badger, smaller than the nominal subspecies, with brown shades on the back, less pronounced sagittal crest and elongated upper molars; spread from Asia Minor and Transcaucasia to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan;
– Meles meles heptneri Ognev, 1931 – Subspecies of large size and light color, with a thinned face mask and ocher reflections on the back and sides [44], present in the steppes of Ciscaucasia up to the Volga delta;
– Meles meles marianensis Graells, 1897 – Iberian yew, small subspecies endemic to the Iberian peninsula;
– Meles meles milleri Baryshnikov, Puzachenko & Abramov, 2003 – Subspecies which includes the small populations widespread in the south-western portion of Norway;
– Meles meles rhodius Festa, 1914 – Badger of Rhodes, a small subspecies endemic to the island of the same name;
– Meles meles severzovi Heptner, 1940 – Transitional subspecies between the common badger and the Asian badger, present in the Amu Darya region, in the Pamir and in the Fergana valley;
– Cretan badger (M. meles arcalus): Subspecies which, however, does not find common recognition by all authors.

Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
The badger is a species that occupies a Palearctic area: it is present in most of Europe, with the exception of northern Scandinavia, Iceland and most of the islands of the Mediterranean Sea, and in part of western Asia, for 15 ° to 65 ° North latitude and from 10 ° West to 135 ° East longitude. In Eastern Europe, its distribution limit is represented by the Volga, while south of the Caspian Sea the species extends as far as Hindu Kush and Iranian Kurdistan.
In Italy this species is present throughout the territory with the exception of Sicily, Sardinia and the smaller islands.
Its habitat is that of oak woods and mixed broad-leaved woods but it adapts without problems to bushy areas, pastures and is also found in the Mediterranean scrub and mountainous areas up to 2000 m of altitude in the Alpine Arc and up to 2500 m in the Caucasus; however it is necessary that in its range there is a minimum of vegetation cover where it can shelter.
It is not present in swampy areas, which it avoids, such as coastal areas and coniferous woods, while it can colonize rocky areas provided that there are also abandoned buildings or natural cavities to shelter.
In general, it is a mammal that adapts to anthropized areas, such as above all peripheral areas, gardens, crops and parks, which it can colonize.

Description –
The badger is a carnivorous mammal with a head and body length of 61-73 cm, with a tail of 1.5 – 1.9 cm; shoulder height of 30 cm, for a weight that varies between 7 and 17 kg.
It has a slight sexual dimorphism with the males which, at the same age, are slightly longer than the females, but heavier.
Being a species that goes into hibernation, the weight varies seasonally, oscillating from 7 – 13 kg in the spring – summer period, to 15 – 17 kg in the winter period, even if some males may have weights that, exceptionally, over 30 kg.
This animal is recognized by the stocky and robust body, with a small and elongated head equipped with large ears, bull neck, short legs and tail.
It has a thick and bristly fur on the back and sides and less dense on the belly, with an almost hairless inguinal region: it is composed of long bristles of 7-8 cm in length, which cover a soft woolly undercoat.
The back is silvery-gray in color, with pale yellow hues on the sides. The tail is equipped with very long and bristly hair of the same color as the back, although in the females there are also white hairs. The belly has a brown color with the lower abdomen and groin region taking on grayish shades.
The areas of the throat, neck, chest and legs are black as well as the two bands that starting from the upper lip pass through the eyes and reach the ears, also black, forming the characteristic and unmistakable mask, about 2 cm thick at the base of the muzzle and up to 5 cm in the region of the temples.
Instead, the face, chin, sides of the neck and the tips of the ears are an off-white color.
During the summer, the badger’s fur becomes less thick and takes on shades that tend to brown.
Furthermore, cases of partial melanism, albinism, leucism and erythrism are not rare.
As for the legs, these are digitigrade and columnar, with the hind legs shorter than the front ones, but all provided with a bare plant and with non-retractable claws, with a curved shape and with a blunt tip, of horn color, suitable for digging. The claws are continuously growing, however especially those of the hind legs (about half as long as those of the front legs) tend to show signs of wear with age.
The badger also has a head with an elongated conformation and in the male there is a sagittal crest which, reaching one and a half centimeters in height, is much more pronounced than what can be observed in the female, which in general has a more slender and thin head and neck. .
The eyes are small and dark brown in color, with a round pupil: the ears are up to 7 cm long.
The snout has a long and cylindrical shape and ends in a muscular and flexible nose, which for function is comparable to the snout of pigs; furthermore, there are numerous whiskers around the muzzle and eyes.
Meles meles is a mammal with weak eyesight that simply identifies moving objects and black and white colors, while the sense of smell is highly developed: hearing is similar to that of humans.
At the base of the tail and in the perineal region there are odoriferous glands: the former secrete a creamy yellowish substance with a musky odor, while the latter secrete a yellow-brown fluid with a more pungent odor.
Both sexes have three pairs of breasts, which are however more developed in the female.
In addition, this mammal can emit a wide range of sounds: hisses, growls and growls during fights, barks in surprise or excitement and shrill screams in case of danger.

Biology –
Badgers are monogamous animals and form pairs that tend to stay together for life, with the male mating only with his partner, while the female can mate with other males as well.
Sexual maturity is reached around 18-24 months of age and the estrus of the females has a variable duration between 4 and 6 days and, even if it is more frequent in the period between spring and summer, it can occur throughout the arc of the year.
Males are also more fertile in the period between January and May, with spermatogenesis undergoing a decline between summer and winter.
Dominant females are generally the only ones to go into heat, inhibiting this event in subjected females (to which the puppies are usually killed in case of delivery), which generally assist the dominant female in looking after the offspring.
The mating period of this mammal usually falls at the entrance to the den between January and May, when the adult females are in post-partum estrus and the young go into heat for the first time.
When the female is not in estrus, the male can mount her anyway for a couple of minutes, while the mating during the mating period generally lasts between 15 and 60 minutes: it is preceded by vocalizations between the two partners and by sniffing. reciprocal of the odoriferous glands.
As for other mustelids, also in Meles meles there is the diapause of the fertilized egg, which takes 2-10 months to implant itself in the uterine wall (even if the couplings in December give immediate implantation).
Once the zygote is implanted, gestation lasts seven weeks, with births peaking between mid-January and mid-March.
The female gives birth to a variable number of cubs ranging from 1 to 5. The birth takes place in a room of the den dedicated to them, even if the females of the areas subject to flooding usually give birth in abandoned buildings.
The cubs, at birth, are blind, semi-naked, pink in color with sparse grayish fur: they measure about ten centimeters in length and weigh between 75 and 132 g, with an inverse proportionality between the birth weight and the size of the litter. .
Towards the 3-5 days of life, the nails appear on the fingers and on the body the black hair lines become distinguishable, including the characteristic mask: the eyes open at 4-5 weeks of life, and around this period they begin to appear even milk teeth.
The final color is reached around two months of life, while at three months their weaning begins, which is usually completed only after a further two months.
Generally, the young remain in their own group even once they have grown up, but it is not uncommon for the females, around the second year of age, to move away from their group to join other communities. Even non-dominant males can move away from their group of belonging for quite long periods, especially during the mating season, to visit other groups, to which, however, they hardly aggregate, tending instead to return to their own group. origin.
The badger has a life expectancy, in its natural state, which varies between 4 and 15 years of life.

Ecological Role –
The badger is an animal with nocturnal habits as during the day it rests inside a den equipped with several exits and vents which it keeps clean with extreme care. He also takes refuge in the den throughout the winter, without ever falling into a real lethargy.
These animals usually live in groups of usually 5-6 individuals, although associations of over 20 badgers have also been observed. There is probably a correlation between the size of the groups and the type of habitat (with related resources provided by it) in which they are found, as well as between the latter and the extension of the territory: in favorable environments the individual territories have generally an extension of about 30 hectares, while in less rich areas they can extend even beyond 150 hectares.
The badger has a quite varied diet: eggs, birds, reptiles and mollusks; this diet can be completed with vegetables: Corn, fruit, sprouts, roots, etc.
The system of dens that this mammal creates is also particular. In fact, it digs its own den in the wooded soil, starting from natural cavities in the ground or in the rocks, along natural and artificial banks or at the base of a tree (which in this case will be used by the various animals that inhabit the den to sharpen their nails.
The den consists of an entrance and a more or less long gallery measuring between 22 and 63 cm in width and 14-32 cm in height, which flows after 5-10 m into a living room usually between 1 and 2.5 m deep in the ground, ellipsoidal (74x76x38h cm) and that (unlike, for example, what can be observed in the red fox) the animal, especially during the cold season, lining with dry leaves, ferns and moss, which l the animal removes and replaces with extreme skill.
Inside the single den there are also several families, each of which tends to use its own entrances and galleries. Sometimes the badger can share its lair with other animal species, such as the wild rabbit and the red fox which is a habitual roommate of the badger; another host is the raccoon dog, in cases where the range of the two species overlaps.
In the colder areas of its range, the animal falls into a real hibernation, blocking the entrances of the burrows with soil and dry leaves and ceasing to come out of the den with the first snowfalls, remaining in this state for a period that can extend from November to April. To meet the needs of hibernation, badgers tend to accumulate abundant body fat during the summer and early autumn, as well as gather abundant insulating material to line their burrows.
As for predators and animals potentially dangerous for this species, there are wolves, bears, lynxes and stray dogs: however, these animals rarely choose to turn to such a demanding prey if they have other sources of food.
Since the nineties, Meles meles is in strong numerical growth (in some areas, such as the United Kingdom, even more than 75%) throughout its range, mainly thanks to the sharp decline in the incidence of rabies.
In Italy, according to the IUCN, the conservation of the badger requires a reduction in abusive killings and a sensitization of the population, especially in areas of intensive agriculture (G. Pigozzi & A.M. De Marinis in Boitani et al. 2003). This species is listed in Appendix III of the Bern Convention. The species is protected and cannot be hunted in Italy (L. 157/92). Least Concern assessed by the European Mammal Assessment (Temple & Terry 2007).

Guido Bissanti

Sources
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– Gordon Corbet, Denys Ovenden, 2012. Guide to the mammals of Europe. Franco Muzzio Publisher.
– John Woodward, Kim Dennis-Bryan, 2018. The great encyclopedia of animals. Gribaudo Editore.




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